Today is June 12. The time of the long days has gently engulfed us with warm dry days, cool nights, the promise of wild berries soon to come,mayflies hanging in the morning air, brook trout rising loudly, their delicious red flesh there for the taking. As if yesterday, we saw no ice in Keweenaw Bay. Our own lake was still icebound when we arrived on May 3, as was the big bay and now our ice is gone as it is from the big water. There were small bergs and ice sculptings floating in the bay on Saturday. They looked almost gaudy in their showoffedness in lingering so late into the next season, not their own.
Short as our nights are now, we are too lethargic in the dark to crawl outside to drink star-shine and confirm that our pole star Polaris continues to patrol it’s tiny tight orbit over our heads. Our planet continues to spin on its own axis and orbit the sun, which creeps further north by the day, unnoticed by all but some farmers and old fishermen and aging navigators. The migrations are done, happened in waves, led by robins, then yellow legs, greater and smaller, various waterfowl, then legions of warbles in all hues of the rainbow and orioles and Keweenaw Canaries (goldfinches). They passed through and stopped to eat and sing and cavort en route to some secret destination, reminding me of Shakspeare’s players out in the hinterlands before they achieved royal sponsorship (which then meant less reason to take their shows on the road, except when plague visited London and the road an eminently healthier alternative.) Hummingbirds and canaries remain, but with the lilacs in full bloom there are fewer hummers at our feeders. Wildflowers are popping everywhere and the little buzzers have ample nectar everywhere to choose from.
Last winter was a meteorological freaky phenomenon, extremely cold, extremely snowy, and extremely long-lived. Lake Superior was damn near iced over in its entirety something that hasn’t happened in a couple of decades. The grudging withdrawal of winter has left local people a bit loopy, as if the Germans finally decamped Leningrad and Stalingrad. Folks stand grinning in the sun, drinking the rays like air-born spirits, which is a sense they are. Gaunt, stunted deer venture onto the grounds and highway verges and it is even money if they will survive a second consecutive monster winter. This rounded hill country (not that much lower than Mts. Arvon and Curwood, the state’s highest points with only 11 inches difference. We are not more than 100 feet lower in our surrounds and some eight miles uphill and inland from the bay and L’Anse (and just a few miles up the road from Bovine). The microclime here is known for cold, including our village of Alberta, and the nearby hill hamlet of Herman. We tend, even now, to be 20 or more degrees warmer than the bay-shore. In winter it is far colder and snowier up this way, and often this area is among the very coldest in the Yoop. With this past winter’s severity we have not yet seen a fawn. These are usually dropped in late May, early June. Biologists say the average winter up here takes 100 thousand cervid lives. A severe winter claims twice that and last winter was an awful one. How bad? There was a predator study being done in Iron County (just south of us) in which 43 fawns were collared last summer, to track through the year. Not one is alive now, all of them taken either by predators or weather since their collaring. The sun, as I said, is creeping northward.
The older I get, the more I appreciate my five years as an Air Force navigator. The opportunity to find my way around the world using centuries-old techniques and barely modern adaptions of old instruments was challenging and satisfying as we winged across oceans at 500-600 knots. My friend, former high school sports foe, fraternity brother, and Air Force crewmate (copilot) will arrive later this month for a brief visit. It is ironic that I lived the nomadic life growing up and he grew up rooted in St. Ignace, and now I am the rooted one and he continues his nomadic, globe-trotting ways. The two local high schools (Baraga and L’Anse) have matriculated and celebrated their senior send-offs, and just last weekend L’Anse had it’s annual lake trout festival, including the Little Miss Lake Superior beauty pageant, which as conducted outdoors in rainy, mid-40 degree weather as the little contestants (ages 8-12) stood shivering in sandals and frilly party dresses for parts of the competition.
This weekend is Bridgefest in Houghton as various communities throw their shindigs to attract tourist monies. Winter of course is now far more lucrative for these Yooper communities, a flipper from my days pre-snowmobiles, when summer was king above the bridge. Still is in my mind. It just doesn’t bring in as much per capita lucre. The snowmobile era took off in the mid sixties, while I was in college. Shaksper turns in every night at 2100 sharp, looking for the coolest, darkest room to sleep. Our schedule is loose. Lonnie and the mutt make a daily perambulation of the campus perimeter checking the progress of wild berries. There was wolf scat along the way as well and Shaks showed considerable balking at some unseen scent. There are two known packs here and we are on the spot where the two territories slightly overlap. But no tracks, no sightings and no howls heard thus far. The wild strawberries as of this morning are beginning to redden, meaning ripening is but days away. These will be followed by raspberries (razzies), blueberries (bloobs), blackberries (blackies), and thimbleberries. One year in Deer Park we had scads of blueberries into October. Thimbleberries are largely an August e event. Strawberries can ripen all summer. We found no morels and as usual guidance from locals is largely lacking.
We were loosely introduced to an older fellow a couple of days ago and when Lonnie revealed we were here for six months, he looked at me and said, “Doing what?” I told him, “Fishing, looking around, reading, the usual stuff,” and I could tell by his eyes none of the three were “usual” by his definition. The overwhelming hospitality of Yoopers continues as fresh cookies, rhubarb desserts and coho fillets arrive at our door. Such gifts are given with no expectation of reciprocation. They are given solely because the gives’ hearts direct them to give. Quite amazing, considering we are virtual strangers, but this reflects the beauty and depth of the collective Yooper soul. Lucky us to be among such warm and welcoming people.
Henry Ford built this little community in 1937 as a “model town.” Seventeen families now live here full-time. It was then said to be located in a region of “giant trees.” The village was named for Miss Alberta Joan Johnson, daughter of Ford’s Iron Mountain superintendent. The first logging took place in the summer of 1936 ( no doubt for lumber to build the village); most logging takes place in winter. Ford built a dam and a 50-acre lake on the property (the lake having been known as Plumbago, Ford, and Alberta Lake at various times over the past 60 years). The village and surrounding forests were given to Michigan Tech University 60 years ago this summer. There will be a celebration of the event this August. The campus is part of the Forestry department. 40 students will be here August- November. It will be fun to meet them and learn what sorts of things they are up to.
Dave Stimac, the current Maintenance Guru here was in 1981 the head sawyer for the Ford plant, which closed that year. He now takes care of this place and makes bird’s eye furniture on the premises. he grew up in Trimountain, and graduated from Painesdale HS in 1971. In my high school days (10 years before Dave graduated) we used to drive over here to play basketball against the Painesdale Jeffers High School Jets. Small world. Dave told me that in 1994 he started the plant back up for a day so that various people could film the plant operation and equipment for posterity. He said it all started easily and ran like a top.
He also related how convicts used to work at the mill and sometimes he would drive over to the minimum security prison to fetch them back to work, usually ten men at a time. But one night ten turned nine, the cops were called and a manhunt begun. It turns out that the man had hidden himself in some inner recess of the mill and after the cops came and dark set it, he went over to the office building, got into the safe, grabbed cash and beat it…. To Sidnaw where he was discovered by troopers that night drinking. Talk about a powerful drive for drink and freedom. Sidnaw (locals prounounce is Sid-na) is all of 15-16 miles from where I type this. Had there been a closer tavern he no doubt would have decamped there. And there is the story of the county’s Nature Boy, also called the Human Cormorant, who was crazed about fishing and fish and lived withi his girlfriend Peaches. But that’s for another time. The characters I hear about up here is wonderful and only adds to the fabric for stories. The photos that follow are the first dozen from yesterday’s self-guided tour of the old Ford Sawmill. Will post more tomorrow or the next day. Very cool. Enjoy. Over.